The Autograph Man by Zadie Smith


  “Boot,” offered mumbling Alex, sitting below her in apish pose, hairy, limp, hands hanging to the floor. “The one from before. ’Cept it’s not happening anymore. She slept here, that’s all.”

  “I see,” said Esther.

  The ceiling was thin. From upstairs, they could hear Kitty’s brisk steps followed by Lucia’s, like a stutter. Esther was getting dressed as if it were a fight she was having with her clothes.

  “Es, calm down—for one minute—”

  “My dear,” came Kitty’s voice from the landing, “Esther, I wonder if you could help me, possibly, just for a minute? It is a little awkward—Lucia, stop this, please—Esther?” With one shoe on and one in her hand, Esther pushed by Alex and started on the stairs. Grace, whose support Alex had hoped for, waited an indecent ten seconds before following her up.

  Alex turned back to the television. He sat on the floor and tried to achieve vajrasana posture, but short of breaking and resetting his bones, he couldn’t see how this might be achieved. Instead, he settled for half-lotus. He found a hairy mint in the carpet and began to suck it. The news turned financial. Numbers went by on a ticker tape. Alex closed his eyes and tried to remember the rules of meditation.

  1. Sit quietly in the meditation posture.

  Yes, thought Alex, yes, got that. Yes, and I’m bloody sat quietly. So? Next. Next.

  2. Become aware of being in the present, here and now, and relax into this space.

  Relax into the here and now? Relax into it? But I’m in it, aren’t I? That’s what I’m doing, I’m bloody in the present, bloody relaxing. Christ.

  3. Resolve to let go of your thoughts, fantasies about the future, nostalgia about the past, mulling over problems, etc.

  Finally, something you could get your teeth into. Alex opened one eye, stretched one arm, and grabbed the end of a bottle of red sitting on the coffee table. He polished it off and resumed the position. I am resolving, he thought, to let go of my thoughts.

  “And now, finally . . .” said the television.

  Alex tried to rid himself of all nostalgia about the past. Every time he felt nostalgic about the past, he had to begin his breathing again as punishment, starting from one and counting to ten on the exhale. As a result, he was close to hyperventilation.

  “Alex,” came Esther’s voice, “Alex, stop that, it’s a pain. Look, I’ve got to get to college, but you need to buy a separate towel for Kitty—she’s got nothing clean up there—Alex, I’m talking to you. Will you stop that, please? You sound like a bloody—” Esther’s voice disappeared. When it came back, Alex couldn’t locate it in the room. It had become a whisper.

  “Oh my God,” she said.

  “Died peacefully in New York last night . . .” said the television.

  “Alex, Alex—open your eyes—Alex, look at this! Are you listening to this?”

  Alex felt a kick in his flank, but refused to allow it to break his concentration. Because Alex-Li Tandem was a Zen Master. I am letting go, thought Alex, of my fantasies about the—

  MEANWHILE, THE TELEVISION, well aware of the median age of its viewers, spent barely a minute on this new death, the 152,460th of the day. Here is a picture of the actress when young:

  Here is one of the men she loved (he is broken now, and on wheels):

  Here is the most famous moment of her most famous film:

  Reclusive, in recent years. She was a talent. Joy to so many. Private funeral. Sorely missed. And now for the weather.

  “Oh my God,” said Alex.

  “Oh my God,” said Esther. They sat, she and Alex, side by side on the floor, freeze-framed. An attractive woman took the opportunity to try to sell them an air freshener.

  “It’s Max,” said Alex, at last speaking aloud an earlier, silent conclusion. “He’s mad. He must have told them that she—”

  “You have to call somebody,” said Esther, not listening, standing up and looking for the phone. “You have to correct this. This is terrible, she can’t see this. It’s incredibly bad karma.”

  “No—wait, let me think.”

  “What do you mean, no? What the hell is there to think about? She’s upstairs.”

  Kitty was calling Esther again, quietly, apologetically, from the top of the stairs.

  “I’m coming! Look, here’s the phone. Just call the papers. A paper. Just let them know a stupid mistake has been made, that’s all. It’s not hard.”

  Alex took the phone and stood up. He closed the door after Esther. He bounced the cordless phone in his palm for a minute, thinking. Then he dialed, listening to the numbers sing an eleven-note song he knew by heart. Esther burst back through the door.

  “She just wanted to know where the shampoo—are you calling them now?”

  Alex put his hand over the receiver and held out a hand for Esther to be silent.

  “Hello? Yes, could you put me through to the Columbard Room, thanks. No, listen,” he said, covering the receiver again. “Look, Es, hear me out—”

  “Alex, who is that? Why are you calling—”

  “No, Es, wait. Before you— It’s not for me. I could make her some serious money today—”

  “Excuse me?”

  “No, think. That’s what she wanted. Right? She needs to be independent—especially of that lunatic. I can make her independent.”

  Esther sat down in an armchair with her mouth open. She made the International Gesture of disbelief (eyes closed for three long seconds and then opened with pupils dilated).

  “Esther? It makes sense.”

  “Don’t give me that,” she said, stiffly. “You just want your big day. You just want to show all those freaks—”

  “Look,” said Alex, “tomorrow we can do the big truth thing and everyone can be confronted with their sins and a duke can come on at the end and marry everybody off—the whole works—I swear. Es, the stuff I put in the lot, yesterday—it will have tripled. It’ll be— Wait, hello? Yes, is that Martin? Is he there? Martin Sands? Yes, it’s Alex-Li Tandem, thanks, yes I’ll wait. Es, we just have to keep it quiet for a day. Nobody gets hurt, and she benefits most, right? Right?”

  Down the phone came one of Bach’s cello things, to Alex always the music of judgment. Esther said something. Elsewhere, Alex’s mobile phone was ringing. It stopped, then Esther’s started, and then his began once more. What vultures used to do on the outskirts of a village is now the business of the telephone exchange, satellites. What comes after death happens on the phones.

  “What did you say? Es? I didn’t hear you.”

  “I said okay,” repeated Esther, and seemed to him defeated, small and unlike herself in his armchair. “Obviously, taken as read—not for you. For her. Not for you. But you can’t let people think it for any longer than necessary. She might have family—you don’t know. When the auction’s done then—”

  “Thank you. Please, take her out—get her out of the house, don’t let her see the television. Please, thanks. We’ll talk properly, later. Thanks.”

  He threw her the keys. He told her something he hadn’t told her in a while.

  “I know. It’s going to kill me,” she replied.

  2.

  Something akin to a welcome committee awaited Alex that afternoon at the auction house. The gathered smokers on the sunny front steps whistled and stamped and jeered as he illegally parked before them.

  “Body not even cold!” cried a man he had never liked. Quite a few Autograph Men of his acquaintance were turning to each other to make one of two gestures: either reaching into their pockets or holding out their open palms.

  “Tandem,” complained Lovelear, appearing at his passenger window. “Well, I bet against. Never picked you for a mercenary. I thought you’d at least wait a week. I’m a sentimentalist, I guess. You just lost me twenty-five pounds, man.”

  Alex shut off the engine and got out of the car. “Has it started yet? Have you seen the catalogue? How far into the auction are they?”

  “Hi, there, Lovelear,” said L
ovelear, trying to keep pace with Alex’s light jog into the building. “Nice to see you, how’s it going? I’m fine, Tandem, thanks for asking.”

  “Not now—later.”

  They sprinted through the hallway.

  “I’ve got some sorta sad news,” said Lovelear, breathlessly, on the stairs. “Tried to call you earlier, but—”

  “Later.”

  Just as they took a left at the cafeteria, an arm reached out for Alex, attached to Baguley. With the other hand Baguley removed his hat and held it to his chest. His face, grotesquely contorted, carried the suggestion of tears. To ward this off, Alex smiled as broadly as he could manage.

  “Baguley. Good to see you. Coming in?”

  “And death,” said Baguley, looking up, inexplicably, at the fake fresco on the ceiling, “shall have no dominion.” He put his hand on Alex’s shoulder and painfully squeezed it.

  “The first thing I did when I heard,” said Baguley, “I put on Rich Pickings and, yes, all right, okay, it’s not one of her best, but I just watched that and you see her there so young and beautiful . . . well, I can tell you, I just felt: death has no dominion. She will literally live forever. In our hearts, and our minds. And on film, of course—that’s the big one.”

  “That’s terrific,” said Lovelear. “Now, if you’ll excuse us—”

  “Of course, your thoughts,” continued Baguley, “go to her family, naturally. She was young, really. In real terms. Your thoughts go to the loved ones. Personally, I think it only decent to wait awhile before . . . can’t just jump in there. Besides, I’m still waiting for verification of my pieces, so . . . But, I think what you take away from it is just, well, one moment you’re here, starring in the film of your life, and the next the great director in the—”

  Here, Alex feigned a coughing fit as a last resort. Baguley came close into him, alternately rubbing and thumping his back.

  “He’s upset, just upset—we all are,” whispered Baguley to Lovelear. “It’s always hard, and of course he met her. . . .”

  Alex righted himself and looked quizzically at Baguley. Just looking at him produced a sweat of anxiety, palpitations of the heart. Baguley was a mass hallucination. Baguley was something bad the world had eaten.

  “Where were you,” resumed Baguley softly, folding his arms, “when you heard?”

  “Holding the smoking gun,” said Alex, taking off his jacket. He had not drunk nearly enough, not yet, but still he thought he might hit this man, out of curiosity if nothing more. But then the stream of Autograph Men heading for the Columbard Room became a flood, and Alex let it take him. He was almost lifted from the floor at one point by two impressive bellies. At the doorway he found Dove twisting his catalogue into a cone, eating his bottom lip. It had just gone three, but the smell of cooking sherry stuck stubbornly to him.

  “Been waiting forever!” he burst out, hitting an accidental falsetto. “Seats over there. Your lots are in, Tandem. Coming up any bloody minute.”

  “And now,” rumbled the auctioneer.

  “I DON’T BELIEVE THIS!” wailed Lovelear fifteen minutes later. He turned and stared at Alex as if he had never met the man before. He was not alone. As the bidding continued to Ping-Pong from an obese man in the front row to a mystery buyer on the phones, more eyes—awestruck, incredulous—turned on Alex, and that very special whisper of an auction room, the one that sounds like money being counted in a vault, rippled once, twice, three times round the room. Alex couldn’t stay in his body, it tingled so. Esther had been right, he had wanted this—he hadn’t realized how much. Ten years in this place watching the big boys. He did want to be a big boy, if only for an afternoon. He wanted to know what that felt like. And it felt, for a moment, incredible. He felt himself rise up, actually rise. He was part of that crazy number the auctioneer had just called out, and that one, and the one after that, and some element of him was in the intricate interlocking hexagons on the ceiling, the royal blue plush of the carpet, other people’s eyes. But the feeling was only good, was only transcendental, for a moment, and in a moment it turned.

  Ten minutes in and he knew he wanted the whole thing off. He wanted to stand up and tell them it wasn’t even his money but he could only sit here and take this celebrity that was being given to him, his fifteen minutes with its fusion of wonder and hatred. He wanted to put his arms up in the air and say, Guys, guys—I’m still one of you, this isn’t my . . . you mustn’t think this is my . . .

  Instead, he sat with his head between his knees as the numbers climbed. Up, up. And he knew he should be happy, thinking of Kitty, who could now sail to freedom on this rising tide of money. Only he could feel himself transforming, in the eyes of this audience, into a symbol of his century’s collective dream: He’ll never work again. Part of the fame dream, this—maybe the largest part. The lottery ticket, the windfall, the mad hope that fate might permanently separate one man from the lives of every man ever born . . .

  He could hear them: not whispers in the room, but whispers in the world. It was so sad, a chorus of moans. Because luck is a sort of insult to the world. Li-Jin had said that. The cinema is full of fathers and their wisdom, but Alex remembered only this one example: as a boy, watching a Chinese earthquake on the television, he had turned to his father and congratulated him on his luck for being here, instead of there. Li-Jin smacked him for his impertinence and told him that luck is an insult to the world. The unlucky dead begrudge you it. And now he could hear them, in this room, that sorrowful fellowship of ghosts who have suffered and died trying to get what was coming to Alex-Li Tandem with gross ease and for no reason whatsoever.

  For the fourth time, the auctioneer knocked his little gavel against Alex’s heart. It was over. The signed photo she had sent him went for fifteen grand. The love letter to a star went for thirty-eight thousand. Another for forty. The final lot, the copy of a letter (of outrageous sexual content) sent to J. Edgar Hoover, went for sixty-five thousand pounds. A man from a London evening paper told him to look surprised and took his photograph.

  AN EVENTFUL HOLLYWOOD auction always wound up in Dante’s, where the Autograph Men went to pick wax, pick over the big sales. On this occasion, Alex could not join the faithful right away. He was the big sale. He still had business in the auction house. There were forms to sign, a check to collect. He did these things like a man in a dream pretending to be a rabbi. People spoke to him, a journalist among them, and in all these transactions he felt a new order of fraudulence. He was not only not the person they thought he was (rich, lucky, shrewd), he was not the person he thought he was, either (useless, damaged, doomed). The truth was somewhere midway, and for the first time in his life he realized that he did not own it.

  When, finally, he was let back into the world, the great crowd of his people had thinned—no one stood on the pavement resting a beer on the windowsill—but inside Dante’s the atmosphere was still convivial, boisterous, at least until Alex-Li Tandem walked in. It is important to get this correct. It was not that people ceased to talk or even that they stared at him directly. The jukebox, playing its limited selection of opera favorites, did not fall silent. Simply, the quality of attentiveness changed. The vibe (and this was a word he had never found a use for until now) changed. It shifted in direction. Instead of pursuing its many natural and chaotic paths, it streamlined. All arrows pointed to Alex. He was a desire magnet. He was ever so slightly famous. He was the center of everything.

  Feeling the suggestion of a new type of loneliness, one harder to shake than its predecessor, Alex made his way to the bar. Everyone he passed congratulated him; there was suddenly no other subject than his success, no form of conversation but those formal felicitations one overhears at bar mitzvahs and weddings, the ones that sound like bells. But they’re just valedictions, thought Alex with horror. Valedictions wearing a different garment! These people are saying good-bye to me. I am no longer of them. I am dead to them. I have passed on. And certainly by the time he arrived at the beer mats and pu
mps, he felt emptied, slapped so many times on the back he was winded. He tried to order a triple gin and tonic, but now Dove was tugging at his coat.

  “Tandem,” he hissed, stinking of one sweet liqueur plied on top of another, “what you doing here? Should be somewhere better than here. Can’t drink in here no more. This place’s for losers, mate.”

  “And I’ll have a bucket of champagne, big man,” said Lovelear, appearing to the left. He had rented a smile off somebody and it was the wrong size.

  “Lovelear,” said Alex quietly, and felt his whole body apologize. “Well. That was all a bit weird, eh?”

  Lovelear whistled. He was still smiling this alien smile. His movements were trying to push towards some vision of Lovelear’s regarding jollity.

  “A hundred and fifty thou-sand. That’s not a bit of weird, my friend, that’s a whole lot of weird.”

  “Yeah . . . It’s weird. It’s very . . .”

  “I just think it’s great,” said bombastic Lovelear, “I just think it’s so great. I mean if you’re asking me, couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy. Damn straight.”

  “Thanks, Lovelear. Really, I appreciate that. Champagne, was it?”

  “Hmm? Oh, yeah,” said Lovelear, thumping the bar. “I mean, you deserve it. No question. How long you been in this business? Never really made much out of it, right? And now! I think it’s incredible—what a story. You know what? I think we have to blow this place, man. I’m with Dove on that one. This is really not up to your newfound status, not anymore. Different club you’re in now. Whole different society.”

  “I happen to like this place,” said Alex, looking around and wondering whether that had ever been true. He watched the only woman in the place, the Slovenian barmaid, pick her way through the bottom-pinchers with a bowl of ravioli held above her head. She delivered it to the far corner, where a man was sitting, his face down on the table’s surface, not making any audible noise but still, one assumed, crying. A hat sat beside him. His great rolling shoulders were going.

 
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